Sing a song of sixpence

The British sixpence, also known as the tanner or sixpenny bit, used to jangle in pockets alongside half-crowns, shillings, threepenny bits, and old pennies – all long defunct.

1958-sixpence_800The sixpence was first minted in 1551 during the reign of Edward VI. After decimalisation in 1971, it had a value of 2½ new pence. Originally made of silver, from 1947 lowlier cupronickel was used.

The first sixpences were minted after silver coinage became debased in the 1540s, especially the silver testoon (shilling) which fell in value from 12d to 6d. The testoon was extremely useful in day-to-day transactions and it was decided that a new coin should be introduced with the denomination of six pennies.

After Edward VI, sixpences were minted under every British monarch including during the Commonwealth, with numerous variations and alterations over the years. Under George II several issues were designed by John Sigismund Tanner, one time Chief Engraver of the Royal Mint, and it has been suggested that this is the origin of the nickname “tanner”, which was a popular name for the coin.

In his novel David Copperfield (1849-50), Charles Dickens describes how David asks “a long-legged young man with a very little empty donkey-cart” if he would like a job:

“‘Wot job?’ said the long-legged young man.
‘To move a box,’ I answered.
‘Wot box?’ said the long-legged young man.
I told him mine, which was down that street there, and which I wanted him to take to the Dover coach office for sixpence.
‘Done with you for a tanner!’ said the long-legged young man, and directly got upon his cart, which was nothing but a large wooden tray on wheels, and rattled away at such a rate, that it was as much as I could do to keep pace with the donkey.”

However, in The World of Words (1938), the indefatigable Eric Partridge offers a different explanation:

“The origin I shall suggest may seem a very odd one: but then, the origin of many slang words is, at first sight, fantastic. In the late 17th to mid-19th Century, there was another slang word for a sixpence, and that word was simon or Simon. In the Bible, St. Peter ‘lodged with one Simon, a tanner’ … the Biblical passage may, to an ingenious mind, have suggested tanner as a new term for a sixpence. The improbability grows mercifully less if you examine the following equation, based on ‘St. Peter lodged with one Simon, a tanner’: ‘one Simon, a tanner’; 1 Simon = a tanner; i.e., 1 sixpence = a tanner; therefore, 1 tanner = a sixpence, or, a tanner = sixpence.”

By the end of the 1970s, the British Treasury raised the prospect of “demonetising” (government jargon for abolishing) the sixpence and asked then Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher for her approval. A note by Geoffrey Howe, Chancellor of the Exchequer, to the Prime Minister in January 1980 stated:

“The reasons that have led us to this conclusion are that the coin is obsolete (in fact it has been so for a number of years) and that demonetisation will enable us to recover the quite valuable stock of metal that is locked up in sixpenny bits. The precise value is difficult to estimate until the coins are processed but should be of the order of £3.5 million.”

Margret Thatcher agreed with the plan and the death warrant for the sixpence was signed in her handwritten note on the Treasury memo: “There will be headlines about the end of the tanner – but for £3.5m it will be worth it.”


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